Financial Poise
Tough Love Leadership

The Balancing Act of Tough Love Leadership

Bad Bosses Don’t Communicate Vulnerabilities

The famous leader, Machiavelli, stated, “It is better to be feared than loved, if you cannot be both.” Tough leaders can make great leaders, as those around you will listen. And to only be loved can lead to unreliable, lackluster results. On the other hand, a ruthless leader may not have the respect of his team—or may even be hated. Tough love leadership, a combination of the two, however, allows leaders to hold their team accountable without losing respect.

Tough Love Leadership Means Firm Yet Reasonable

Think about the differences among famous leaders. Most recently, Ellen Degeneres became persona non grata in daytime TV as her staff alleged mistreatment and a toxic workplace. And then there are leaders like Angela Merkel, who are known for being tough while maintaining humility and respect.

In 2019, Senator Amy Klobuchar (MN, D) was accused of mistreatment by staff members, as well. She told CNN, “One can always do better, and that means you want to be sure that you are listening to people if they felt that something was unfair, or they felt bad about something. But I still think that you have to demand good product.”

She was apologetic, but at the same time made the point that bosses can be tough, but also reasonable. The two are not mutually exclusive. As a boss, this way of thinking stems from having enough self-awareness to know that, while you can be a real jerk sometimes, there are valid reasons why that may be. If your subordinates understand that they may not necessarily be the source of your anger, and that you have other issues with which to deal, it may provide context to the situation and more appreciation for you as a leader. They may be able to see that there is a reason for the “madness.”

Of course, we rarely see leaders open up to this extent. Why is that?

Perhaps it’s because bosses think, “Oh, the people below me don’t need to know this stuff,” or, “It’s not their business.”

Consider this: Should you choose not to be as inclusive and you’re going to berate a team member, they’re not going to know the reasons for why you are that way. Consequently, you’re really doing them a disservice, because they don’t know where all this anger from you is coming from. Tough love leadership requires transparency and context for your actions and decisions.

Do You Lead from the Front or the Side?

Be honest: Does everybody on your team understand where you are going as a company and what your intentions are as a leader? These questions speak to the idea of leading from the front or leading from the side.

If you are leading from the front, you’re saying, “Follow me. While I know that you may not agree with this course, I am the leader and have to take responsibility for achieving our objective now.”

Or you may be leading from the side and saying, “Here’s where our objective is. I need you to come with me. We’re all in this together.”

In some cases, we will see examples of “Do as I say, not as I do.” In other words, “It’s okay for me as a leader to act out of place, but don’t let me catch you doing it, because that is not appropriate.”

Leading from the front or side is about the leader being able to articulate the mission and then continue to measure how well the team is advancing towards the goal. As your team advances toward that goal, are you treating everybody the same? Or, do you set similar expectations for each individual and then not hold everyone similarly accountable for their actions? As a tough love leader, are you remaining fair to everyone?

Change Your Perspective: Team First, Individuals Second

Consider a different point of view from atop your organization. Look at what is to be done as opposed to who is doing it.

Be mindful of the fact that you and your team have something to accomplish, and it matters little who is leading the charge. Regardless of who that is, your team members need to understand what their process is, how they interact with the rest of the team, and how they can expect the team members to interact with them.

Leading and being led are situationally dependent actions. You must be insightful enough to understand what is going on with the task at hand. You also need to be articulate and clear about what those goals and objectives are.

Essentially you can say, “I’m going to try to avoid being an idiot, but there are times when you are going to look at something I have done and say, ‘He’s an idiot.’ But I would ask you to talk to me about that, so that I can not only understand where you are coming from, but also so I can explain why my actions can help us get to where we have all agreed we need to be. It’s okay if you don’t understand that right now, but when the time comes, I need you with me.”

The tender balance of toughness and transparency is one of the most challenging tasks for a leader to master. You can be a tough leader, but if you lack transparency, you may be seen as cold-hearted. You can be a transparent leader, but if you do not hold team members accountable in a firm but fair manner, you risk being seen as a weak pushover. The best leaders learn to walk the line of tough love leadership.


[Editors’ Note: To learn more about this and related topics, you may want to attend the following webinars: HR-101: Finding, Negotiating With & Retaining Potential Hires and An Ounce of Prevention: Policies, Procedures and Proactivity. This is an updated version of an article originally published on April 30, 2019.]

©All Rights Reserved. June, 2021.  DailyDACTM, LLC d/b/a/ Financial PoiseTM

About David Spitulnik

David Spitulnik Managing Partner, Spitulnik Advisors, LLC David Spitulnik is a successful executive with over 40 years of experience in both large technology companies and in consulting to and leadership of mid-market, closely held and family owned businesses across a variety of industries. In addition to serving as chair of the Private Directors Association’s Private…

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